I am delighted to welcome Jim Webster to Robbiesinspiration today with a fabulous short story as part of his book tour to promote two lovely books: Tallis Steelyard A Guide for Writers and Others Stories and Tallis Steelyard Men behaving badly and other stories
It all comes out in the wash
In a roundabout way it’s all the fault of the Widow Handwill. If the widow had been more discerning about the savants she employed to entertain her guests, she wouldn’t have had a necromancer attempting to sacrifice an upstairs maid to some demon. Admittedly he failed and the maid was rescued but still, the room was haunted, even after we washed the mortal remains of the necromancer off the walls. So the widow decided to sell the house and move elsewhere. It took a while to sell, but eventually it was purchased by a successful madam who wished to run it as a high class bordello.
You can understand her thinking. Whilst the house might be haunted, it wasn’t as if anybody was intended to sleep there. Also she could anticipate getting a large house in a nice area for far less money than you might expect. As it was there was more competition for the property than people expected, so Widow Handwill did better than we had feared.
It was a year or two later when I was walking past Ninno’s cafe. As I did so my cousin Thela hailed me. She’s the respectable one in our family, she’s a temple dancer at the Temple of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Chastity. She waved me across to join her at a table where she was sitting with another lady. I received a kiss on the cheek from Thela and a large cup of coffee was placed in front of me. Then she introduced me to her companion. Madam Veronique, proprietor of the House of Stolen Dreams. This was the bordello that had been set up in Widow Handwill’s old house.
It seems that Thela and Veronique went back a lot way, having been girls together before their paths drifted apart somewhat. As I sipped my excellent coffee, Thela asked, “Could you do Veronique here a favour.”
I bowed as much as one can from a sitting position. “Thela, I am yours to command.”
She turned to Veronique. “I told you he was a nice boy.”
Veronique leaned forward across the table. “Tallis, we send our bed linen to Mistress Hoggan to clean, and I wondered if you would take the dirty linen there and fetch the clean linen back.”
“Where is this Mistress Hoggan?”
“She has a laundry not far from Fluance.”
That genuinely surprised me. I asked, “What’s wrong with the laundries in Port Naain!”
Veronique did me the honour of assuming I was asking a genuine question. “Nothing. It’s just that nobody can get whites as white as Mistress Hoggan. I suspect she uses a bluing agent.”
“I’ve heard of them, apparently a tiny bit of blue makes white whiter or something like that?”
“Yes, there are some in Port Naain who offer a service but frankly your sheets end up a pastel shade of blue. Or even worse whatever the laundry uses makes the sheets brittle.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “But why do you need to go to these lengths?”
Veronique smiled at me. “Tallis, who sees your bed linen?”
I wondered if it was a trick question. Tentatively I answered, “Shena and I.”
“Exactly. But I run a bordello. Our sheets are on display, all our customers see them. We pride ourselves on everything being clean, pristine and perfect.”
Put like that I could see where she was coming from. “Then I’ll be glad to help out”
Veronique slipped a five alar coin across the table to me. Be at our back door tomorrow morning at dawn and you can have the sheets. The steamer, Speedwell, is expecting the consignment.”
I don’t know if you have ever visited a bordello at dawn. Any young ladies present tend to be demurely dressed, the staff on duty are busy and the whole place takes upon the aura of a decent hotel with few if any pretensions. In some of the rougher establishments there’ll be a shed in the courtyard, or a side room near the exit, bedded with straw. Here patrons who have had too good a night will snore quietly awaiting collection. I’m been sent to collect people before now, and there’s a camaraderie of those involved. The boatswains from a number of ships, the provosts from the companies of several condottiere, city watch officers keeping an eye open for men wanted for sundry offenses, all work cheerfully together to sort through the sleepers and each will load their own in a cart and haul them away. The presence of a poet sent to collect an erring family member by a patron seems to fit nicely into their jaundiced view of the world.
As it was, on this occasion nobody needed collecting. Apparently Veronique had a policy of sending her clients home in sedan chairs should they be unable to make it under their own steam. Instead, because I was in good time, I was served an excellent breakfast of fried mott bacon, sausages, black pudding, and fried bread. Whilst I dined I watched a steady stream of porters carrying wooden crates crammed full of dirty bedding. Replete, I made my way outside to discover that this laundry filled two decent sized carts. It was at this point I realised the magnitude of my task, but then, with two carts and carters to manage them I merely made a significant gesture and my small convoy made its way through Port Naain to the wharves.
The Speedwell was waiting, and her crew, obviously used to the business, soon had the crates up the gangplank and stored them on the deck near my cabin. To be fair, I’d not expected a cabin. In my previous travels I’ve normally slept in a sheltered corner of the deck. Seeing everything loaded I decided to wander round and see if there was anybody I knew on board. On the foredeck, convenient to the forward steward’s station, a somewhat podgy young man was making manful efforts to deplete the boat’s wine cellar. He shouted me across, “Tallis Steelyard?”
“I am. But I’m afraid you have the advantage.”
“I’m Selwick Bonta. I heard you perform at Arubin Zare’s birthday party.”
Well that placed him for me. The Zare family are lawyers, usurers and pirates. (Although the family seems to divide the work up between them so that Port Naain is spared the embarrassment of having to haul through the courts a pirate who is also a leading lawyer. Obviously the roles of pirate and usurer fit together with less social friction.) I’d been asked to produce a few verses for old Arubin’s birthday. From memory he could have been seventy-five or thereabouts. Because everybody present was one of the office staff, Selwick had to be one of the Zare clan’s employees. By simple deduction he didn’t look like a pirate and looking at his dress I’d assume he was a usurer’s clerk. Still he was companionable, waving a wine bottle and a glass in my direction and I had nothing to do for at least a day.
I sat down and we talked. Or rather Selwick talked. He was obviously coming up in the world, he had an independent assignment and an expense account. The longer our conversation continued the less Selwick talked and the more the wine took over the conversation. We had lifted anchor about the time he ordered another bottle. Later he insisted on paying for lunch which the steward brought out to us. Indeed the steward smiled at me in the manner of a man who appreciated the way I was ensuring the free-spending inebriate kept out of everybody’s way.
Finally I managed to work out the full story. It appears that when going through some accounts Selwick had made some interesting discoveries. Apparently the senior partners had been methodically stripping the assets from the accounts of various clients, replacing them with investments that were nowhere near as valuable, whatever the paper valuation might be. Selwick had quietly raised this with one of the partners, intimating that perhaps it was time he got a pay rise. The partner, Mulcon Zare, described Selwick as a sharp young man who would go far. Selwick had immediately been promoted and brought into the inner circle. He had also been given a task, an expense account, and told not to stint himself.
I asked, tentatively, what he meant by ‘the inner circle.’ Slyly Selwick lifted his shirt. There in the middle of his chest was a tattoo. “This is the tattoo they put on the partnership’s special agents so we can identify each other.”
Certainly the pattern was complicated, you couldn’t imagine somebody dreaming up the same pattern by accident. On the other hand, if asked I would have described the design as distinctly cabalistic. Still, I am a poet, not a usurer, so what do I know of such things.
Seeing that Selwick seemed unable to stop talking, I asked what his mission was.
“I’m taking the shirts to Mistress Hoggan’s laundry.”
Between ourselves it hardly strikes me as the sort of role one would reserve for a valued member of the inner circle. I think Selwick sensed my surprise because he elucidated.
“All the senior Zare clerks and partners wear white shirts, and they have to be as white as possible. Only Mistress Hoggan get them white enough. So I’m taking the shirts there. But really it’s just my excuse to get out of Port Naain. When I meet Mistress Hoggan she’ll give me a letter which will tell me my real job. Then I’m off. Apparently whatever I’m doing is in Meor, so I’ve been told to drop hints to ensure that people who know me don’t worry if I’m away for a long time.
Now, without wishing to seem judgemental, I couldn’t imagine the Zares giving Selwick independent responsibility. In my opinion he had been over-promoted when they made him a clerk. Still as I’ve said before, I’m not a usurer.
Next morning the steamer tied up at Thrang Pier. I walked into the village and made arrangements to hire carts, whilst Selwick, unsteadily, supervised the unloading of our great mound of dirty washing.
Our convoy of four carts wound over unpaved roads which followed a stream for several miles, heading slowly uphill and away from a river. Then we eventually came to a mill pond with a mill next to it. We were greeted by Mistress Hoggan, an attractive woman in her early thirties. The carts were unloaded and were sent on their way with strict instructions to return next morning, scrubbed clean to carry clean clothes away.
Selwick in his usual ostentatious manner explained that he was sent to get a secret mission. Mistress Hoggan asked to see his tattoo but did not offer to display one of her own, much to Selwick’s obvious disappointment. Selwick was then told to walk along the track to some buildings just visible amongst the trees. Seemingly Mistress Hoggan was the proud possessor of a husband who ran a small tannery and mott farm. Because of the smell associated with the two trades, they kept their tannery some distance from their mill. Indeed it even drew its water from a different stream. Apparently it was Master Hoggan who would give Selwick the letter detailing his mission. Much to my satisfaction, Mistress Hoggan also extracted five alars from Selwick to pay my expenses for taking the consignment of clean shirts back to the Zares. A somewhat disgruntled Selwick set off along the narrow and somewhat muddy track which led to his appointment with Master Hoggan.
The rest of the day passed in an interesting manner. Given I was somewhat at a loose end it struck me as entirely reasonable that I should help Mistress Hoggan. So I cheerfully carried crates of dirty linen, emptied them into a great tank in the mill where everything soaked. I then set to with a will to scrub out the crates and set them drying in the sun whilst Mistress got on with other chores. Eventually she called me for my evening meal, pigeon pie, with a large slice set aside for her husband.
“He’ll be busy this evening, I’ll take his meal up to him later.”
I must confess that the mill fascinated me. Whilst it could grind corn, in that the millstones were still in place, the power was rarely directed to them. Instead the main function of the water wheel was to power a great drum which rotated and was used to wash the clothing. Also there was a stone channel which could be filled with four-pointed leaves from the Adigo plant. A great stone wheel was driven round and round the trough by the waterwheel, crushing the leaves. The juice which ran off was cleaned and was then reduced by careful boiling to provide a thick paste, an indigo dye. This dye, Mistress and her husband sold to dyers in Port Naain. Even the water from washing out the trough wasn’t wasted. It was used in the final wash for all white fabrics, the traces of dye acting as a bluing agent to get the linen especially white.
I slept in the mill, on a truckle bed that was normally stored under the great worktop used for ironing sheets. I slept well. Some people will tell you that the countryside is too quiet and they cannot sleep, but I find silence and fresh air the perfect sleeping draught. At one point, it must have been the middle of the night, I drifted into consciousness. Somebody, not too far away, was feeding mott. I could hear their excited squeals. Then I remembered Mistress saying that her husband would be busy that evening. Perhaps he’d been too busy to feed the mott earlier. Next morning I was awakened early and was set to work stacking crates of clean linen out in the yard. As I worked I noted a tall, thin-faced man arrive. He walked down the track from the piggery, carrying three empty buckets. As I carried crates, he proceeded to clean out the dovecote, placing the pigeon droppings almost lovingly into the buckets. Mistress Hoggan came out and introduced me to him. He was her husband.
He looked me up and down. “Are you going back to Port Naain?”
I gestured at the crates. “As soon as the carters come for these, I’ll be going.”
“Could you deliver a package for me please?”
“I’ve got four carts full of crates, I’m sure I can fit an extra package in somewhere. Where do you want it taking?”
“Hassen Twill, he has a small emporium. It’s on Mott Ginnel, just off Slip Pike Lane, round the back of Ropewalk.”
“It’ll be no trouble at all.”
Mistress Hoggan went into the house and came out with a neatly wrapped parcel. I took it off her, it was surprisingly light and floppy. Master Hoggan answered my question before I asked it. “It’s leather. I hand cure a small quantity of the very finest leather, just to meet individual orders.” He gestured to the three buckets behind him. “That’s what the pigeon muck is for, it’s the only thing to use if you want real quality.”
It was at this point that the carts arrived. I tucked the package of leather inside my shirt and set to work with the others. We soon got them loaded and as I climbed aboard the last one, Mistress Hoggan passed me another package. This proved to contain sandwiches, slices of roasted mott ham between slices of fresh bread. She also passed me a single gold alar, “For carrying the package.”
As I leaned back amongst the crates, eating my breakfast with a hearty appetite, it did occur to me that I had, for once, struck it lucky. On this one trip I had earned more than I would hope to in a month. Why, if I could get more of this sort of work I could drop my less appreciative patrons and spend more time writing poetry as opposed to rushing from door to door flattering people who had only a limited appreciation of the arts. The short journey back to Thrang Pier seemed to be a series of charming bucolic vistas. The sun shone, and by the time we reached the pier, I had come to the conclusion that this was indeed the life for me.
The carters helped me stack the crates of clean linen on the pier and I sat and waited for the Speedwell to return.
I will follow my muse
Over hill and dale
An early sun does suffuse
A new light
On my plight
My patrons of old
Never paid gold
So I am away down the trail.
It struck me that Shena might well approve of a change. I might be away from home for a couple of days, but for the rest of the week I’d be at her beck and call, available to help out should she need me. I’d even be able to keep more regular hours rather than getting home just before dawn because I had been conscripted into helping the household staff clean up after a party that became particularly boisterous.
The lookout on the Speedwell obviously spotted me because she came across and anchored alongside the pier. The crew helped me load, and given that this was clean linen, we stacked the crates in the cabin that had been reserved for Selwick and I retired to my own cabin to consider further my possible career move.
Back in Port Naain I could be mistaken for a person of consequence. Four large carts I took into Dilbrook. At the bordello I took two of the carts round the back and I was assisted in the process of unloading them by a group of burly men who were obviously the establishment’s ‘doormen.’ I paid off the first two carters and accompanied by the second pair made my way to the Merchant Quarter. There are the prestigious offices of the Zare clan I delivered the shirts. I didn’t mention Selwick. It struck me that if he was known to be loose-mouthed, they might wonder what he’d told me. I didn’t want the Zares to regard me as somebody who knew enough to be a potential blackmailer. I merely told them that Mistress Hoggan had asked if I would deliver the shirts for her. They seemed to find this entirely reasonable. Indeed, an unexpected side effect of my reticence was that they paid off the carters and also gave me something ‘for my trouble.’
Now on my own, I made my way back towards the barge and Shena. I had to detour slightly to pass the shop of Hassen Twill, but still it was no great extra distance and I’d already been generously paid for it.
At the shop the door was locked so I knocked. It was opened for me by a bald man with an ear-ring in his right ear. I asked, “Hassen Twill?”
Slightly suspiciously he answered, “Yes.”
“I have a package for you, leather from Master Hoggan.”
At that he threw open the door. “Come in, come in. Would that all my suppliers were as reliable as the Hoggans. He led me to a desk and sat down behind it. “Sit down, have a glass of wine. How are the Hoggans?”
As he poured wine I pulled the package out from under my shirt. “The Hoggans are fine and asked me to remember them to you.”
As I sipped wine he eagerly opened the package. “Ah, beautiful work as always, look at it.”
I have to say that the leather was beautiful. Not only had it been tanned, it was also dyed a pleasant shade of purple. “Just let your fingers caress it.”
I did as he asked, and indeed this had been tanned by a master. Can you imagine leather that was so soft you could wear it next to your skin without discomfort?
“What will you do with it?” I confess I was genuinely curious.
Hassen Twill lifted the leather up and let it hang down in a single sheet. “I have a customer who wants it for binding books with. Call him old fashioned but he feels that a thaumaturgical tome deserves only the finest of leathers.” He turned it round to look at the back of it, “And of course purple is the traditional colour for such works.”
I sat, staring at the leather. When the original wearer of this hide was still living, they had been tattooed. There in the middle of the sheet was the same cabalistic symbol I had last seen on Selwick’s chest. Oblivious of my silence as I contemplated the implications of this, Hassen kept on talking. “Of course I’ve got to order them well in advance, but the Zare clan seem to be able to organise enough raw hides for Hoggan to work on.”
My mouth was a little dry when I said, “I think Hoggan has just taken delivery of another hide.”
“Excellent, I told them I’d need another by the end of the month.”
Almost lovingly he folded the leather and put it to one side. “I was just thinking, would you be able to go and fetch it for me?”
I shook my head. “I’m awfully sorry, but I’m going to be busy. Patrons to flatter, poems to write, you know the sort of thing.”
Let’s hear from Jim Webster
Well first there’s, ‘Tallis Steelyard. A guide for writers, and other stories.’ The book that all writers who want to know how to promote and sell their books will have to read. Sit at the feet of the master as Tallis passes on the techniques which he has tried and perfected over the years. As well as this you’ll have music and decorum, lessons in the importance of getting home under your own steam, and brass knuckles for a lady. How can you resist, all this for a mere 99p.
Then we have, ‘Tallis Steelyard. Gentlemen behaving badly, and other stories.’ Now is your chance to see Port Naain by starlight and meet ladies of wit and discernment. There are Philosophical societies, amateur dramatics, the modern woman, revenge, and the advantages of a good education.
So come on, treat yourself, because you’re worth it.
Reviews of books by Jim Webster
I have read and enjoyed a couple of Jim Webster’s books. You can read my reviews here: